Brunch Goals at Chef Mona Leena’s California-Palestinian Restaurant, Lulu
Bay Area-born and raised chef Mona Leena Michael opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Lulu, earlier this year in Berkeley, Calif. Have previous culinary experiences, including being part of the opening team of Roka Akor; Serpentine’s chef; and most recently as executive chef of Dyafa in Oakland, Lulu is her first foray as owner and chef.
Offering Palestinian cuisine with a fresh and modern California twist, Lulu is a warm and welcoming restaurant, bright with exposed brick walls and white interiors contrasting with brightly painted fig patterns, tea lights and greenery. lush.
As a first-generation Palestinian and Californian born and raised, the menu is both an ode to her education and heritage, as well as a way to pay homage to the diversity that this region is famous for.
“Inspiration comes from my culinary experiences – my upbringing as a Palestinian American, born and raised in the Bay Area, and my education in the San Francisco restaurant industry,” says chef and owner Mona Leena. Michael. “Although some demonize the culture around restaurants – hard work and rigid chefs, I flourished and rose through the ranks.”
Originally born to chef Leena’s popular The Mana’eesh Lady pop-up, Lulu offers some of her favorite Palestinian dips, breads and dishes with a visually appealing presentation. It quickly became a hot spot for its impressive mezze brunch which features dynamic brunch boards for two.
Seasonal brunch boards include a mix of homemade breads, dips, spreads and shareable items including: Za’atar Fried Eggs, Fried Halloumi, Labneh, Baba Ganoush, Shakshuka , Za’atar Mana’eesh, Seasonal Fruits and Suite. The a la carte offerings are also noteworthy and include Leena’s version of a traditional Palestinian dessert, Knafeh, served as a pancake with grated filo pastry, sweet cheese, orange blossom syrup, and pistachios.
We spoke with Chef and Owner, Mona Leena Michael, about her transition from pop-up to brick and mortar; initial challenges; inspiration and more. Here is what she had to say.
Talk about the inspiration for Lulu as a concept of a Palestinian restaurant meets California.
I have worked with many different cuisines over the past decade. Being able to take my favorite things – be it ingredients or techniques, other cuisines and cultures – and figure out how to delicately and intentionally mix them with traditional Palestinian foods, is not just a challenge but fun.
It’s so rewarding at the end when you taste something you’ve conceptualized and it’s absolutely delicious.
I see California and “California cuisine” beyond the “farm-to-table” approach most take. I use the label “Californian cuisine” to illustrate the melting pot that is California, with its rich tapestry of various cultures and cultural foods that I have been exposed to and learned throughout my life.
How was the transition between managing your pop-up and opening this restaurant? What are some of the challenges, if any, that you have encountered?
Well, launching my pop up was really an accident, and before that I had only worked in restaurants. I was part of the opening team of two major restoration projects in the city, both Roka Akor and Bartlett Hall. Legalizing my pop-up after my neighbor reported that my hour-a-week neighborhood bake sale was an experience in itself, especially during the pandemic. There is no document that contains all the answers or a list of the things you need to accomplish.
When you call for services and ask for help, you never get the whole story or all the details you need to get your show on the road! Fortunately, we finally succeeded. For me, running the pop-up was more exhausting than working in a restaurant. Carrying cambros and ingredients and coolers and propane tanks etc coming and going, ready all morning to cook all day to clean up all night. You have to be very careful with the work and time spent in your commissary kitchen because you can quickly rack up crazy rental bills and get into the negatives.
That being said, I feel much more at home in a restaurant setting. Everyone has their own stressors, but having your own space where you set the tone for the day, the space and the menu is what I have found to work best for me. The challenges of opening a restaurant during a pandemic were serious. From contractor and labor shortages, to table shortages, to commodity shortages, to trying to navigate a whole other city (Berkeley) and how to operate properly, it was certainly a whirlwind. .
I often had to make the decision to spend more money to get what I wanted in a timely manner or, failing that, to delay the opening for a month. Beyond that, again, trying to work with a city and its many departments, when offices are closed due to a pandemic, was not easy and could be exhausting and frustrating.
How have your previous roles at Roka Akor, Serpentine’s and Dyafa prepared you to run your business?
I must say that my collective experiences in all the restaurants where I have worked have helped me prepare, each in its own way. Jardiniere taught me the fundamentals and this is what I consider to be my “bootcamp”. Roka Akor introduced me to a whole new approach to food, but also taught me to set limits. Working at Serpentine and Foxtail catering, I would say, has helped me the most to understand how a business really works.
The numbers, the ebb and flow, how to empower employees and keep a kitchen organized and tight. As for Dyafa, it taught me to be confident in what I know and taught me that I was, in fact, ready to open my own business after redesigning the kitchen to work as I know it. ‘a kitchen can and should.
What’s on the menu and what are some of your favorite dishes? Mezze brunch boards are so unique, where did this concept come from?
The mezze boards came from different things. First, after taking up Dyafa, I received many comments from guests who were often irritated that there was no way to try “all the dips without spending a ton of money.” Arab guests in particular were outraged at paying $ 12-14 for something they could potentially make at home for a fraction of the cost.
I myself am a “snacker”. I always want lots of little things to snack on. When I eat out, I only go out to eat with people who I know will be willing to throw in and share a bunch of different plates. I really believe this is the best way to eat and get a complete idea of what a restaurant has to offer. It’s the way I was brought up to eat, to share an assortment of food together, and I wanted to bring this experience to people to whom it may seem foreign!
As for my favorite things on the menu… it’s tough. I wrote and developed all of the recipes myself, so they are all my favorites! We deliberately have a small menu for breakfast, lunch and brunch, as each dish has a purpose, has been prepared with intention and is exquisite in its own way. If I had to pick one thing I would say the knafeh pancake is my favorite, but only because I have a serious sweet tooth!
Where do you get your ingredients from? Everything is so fresh!
Our spices come from Villa Jerada, an amazing Moroccan company that offers some of the freshest, most fragrant spices I have ever tasted. I highly recommend them. Our za’atar is from Al’Ard, a Palestinian company. Our olive oil comes from Harvest Peace, a company that supports Palestinian families in the olive grove game in Palestine. Unfortunately (and fortunately) I had the last jugs of last year’s harvest and this year with all the attacks on Palestinian families and the state of Palestine, Harvest Peace was unable to continue its operations, we will therefore have to wait until next season.
We have partnered with CreamCo Meats for our protein, although protein is very limited on our menu. And when it comes to our products, we source as much as possible from local farms. We just received three cases of Pineapple Quince from Free Spirit Farms last week to make our delicious membrillo to pair with our halloumi sandwich, and I can’t wait to
Share it! The early girl shak shouka you tasted was made from Early Girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce (by far the best tomatoes on the market in my opinion). We also have an extremely small kitchen, so virtually everything you eat on the day you arrive has been received and prepared that morning. We start to get ready at 4am to make sure our customers get the best quality and the freshest food! It’s great to hear you noticed!
How did the reception go? Something in the upcoming work?
We are so grateful for the support we have received over the past two months. I never imagined we would book every weekend! I am truly floored, and so grateful for it all. In the works is a series of dinners. I can’t share any details yet, as it’s still at the very beginning of the conceptualization process, but the night hours will be coming soon.
Check out my personal experience dining at Lulu on my Instagram, @cheycheyfromthebay.